One night I was told, jokingly, by a girl I met here that I hadn’t fallen in love with the city because I had instead fallen in love with the other girl who was sitting at the table. As I recall it, the night was cool - but I doubt that was so - the night sky was inky with depth and the pavement terraza we were drinking beers at was lit with a wash of yellowy light. As with all things I have discovered here, the girl’s statement was at once an endearing fiction and the shadow of a fact.
A book I read once, which I am loath to recommend, yet which has stayed present in me since I read it, mentions that any story worth telling requires a remarkable place, a place that is as much a character as the characters, and a woman. Quite obviously its author/protagonist is male and despite this raffish utterance his love story was peripheral and more or less superfluous. However, patently, this too, for whatever reason, has stuck with me and I repeat it here to quickly murder any exposition. This is a love story. It is mine, and it could not have happened as it did without this city, which, for all its faults, exists for romance.
It seems incapable of being anything but the stage for a love story. I am not the first to use it as such, and I surely will not be the last. Another best-selling novel, a more masterly work, which I will happily name - Love in the Time of Cholera – was set in this city that takes its name, ultimately, from another city famous for a love story, that of Dido and Aeneas. I am in Colombia, and the city that affords me one of my principle characters is named Cartagena.
The city began with the Spanish and it became what it is today because of pirates and corsairs, because of the wealth of the New World and the slaves that were needed to toil in it. In short, the city has a history that is as enrapturing and swashbuckling as any Bruckheimer production. It has a history that is described in most accounts with words like “laden”, “decimated”, “repelled”, “bombarded”, “majestic”, and “betrayed”.
A man named Pedro de Heredia arrived at a site, which was at the time a settlement of indigenous Indians, in 1533, annexed the land and called it Cartagena de Poniente after the Cartagena of his native Spain. The city quickly became an important trading port and slave market, linking the South American hinterland with the Caribbean and Europe. Its prosperity was attractive. In response to the habitual and distinctly hostile interest displayed by English and French marauders, Spain decided to spend vast wealth on fortifying it. Ramparts and guard towers were built, encasing the city. A squat, hulking fort, a grey monolith baptised el Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, rose up at the rear of the city, and various other forts were constructed in strategic locations.
The ramparts still exist, and within them so does much of the architectural style of the colonial period. While Cartagena proudly celebrates its role as the first administrative node within South America to have declared itself independent from the Spanish crown it also proudly flaunts those of its features that it owes to its Spanish heritage. Except for a few lapses in the last half-century, those fine Spanish features have generally been taken care of. It was partially these fine features, along with shots of tall ships, and billowing flags, and sunsets behind palm trees, that drew me here.
When I first stepped off of the bus, after a long and tiring eight days on the road, I was disappointed. The city that I had seen through the bus windows in the early hours of day was not charming, at least not in the way I’d expected. It looked to me much like the dirt patch monotony of fraying hovels, and stray dogs, stray children, dead-eyed adults, and banged up equipment that are found in many of the impoverished yet economically engaged areas of Africa. This impression was strengthened by the fact that all of the people I saw in this landscape were dark-skinned. I worried that I had screwed up. I had come from Africa, and I had come looking for South America, or at the least for the Caribbean. I had travelled half of a continent to reach Cartagena, having landed in Buenos Aires, and gone through landscapes that were often as intriguing as they were deeply monotonous. I had been laughed at (often), aided, admonished, and worried over by a cast of worthy characters. I had been told regularly that I would be robbed and killed, and I learned quickly from the very people that were so ready to assist that most South Americans did not trust their fellow countrymen, and maintained a steady contempt for the citizens of other South American countries. And yet, despite this, those buses in which I was the only foreigner to the continent were characterized by comfortable yet non-committal camaraderie. The bus journey had been its own adventure, with a suitable range of trials and pay-offs, and I had done it because after a few weeks of job-hunting in Argentina I’d taken a gamble and decided once-and-for-all that my best shot at happiness on the continent lay in Cartagena. I sent off a barrage of C.V.’s, got three laconic replies, and got on the first of many buses.
I did not panic when I saw that the scene outside the windows of the bus did not match the pictures that sell the city. I’d read in an online forum that the bus terminal was far out from the city. This, I thought, was not yet Cartagena. I would just have to be patient, and I would be rewarded with the beauty and charm that had been promised me. I was tired, having hardly slept on the final leg of my trip, on a bus that was conspicuous from all others I’d been on for its inverted ratio of foreigners to locals.
I tried to arrange to share a taxi with a German couple but I’d been too slow. They’d already made an arrangement with another couple. So I stepped up and asked a taxi driver what it would cost me to get to town. After weathering the knock that I’d known was coming, I bargained half-heartedly, being too tired to press hard, and then jumped in and allowed the man to drive me somewhere. The driver was a pleasant, jovial man who stopped off to buy us coffees on the way. After a little while of comfortable, glazed daydreaming, approximately thirty minutes or so I’d guess, I received my reward. It was true, the real Cartagena did exist, and it was to my virgin eyes a vindication. A prayer left my lips - there would be things to discover here. But it was not a full sigh of thanks, not a blessed release. I still had a lot of work to do. I needed to find a job.
We came over a bridge and I saw ash-grey city wall and people setting out to begin their day along the street and pavements. A minute or so later the narrow chute of buildings we’d driven down opened up and I saw a veritable, venerable clock tower, a harbour with not one, but two, tall ships flying the gaily-coloured Colombian flag, and behind them the glittery high-rises that had made me think of Miami when I’d first seen them in pictures. I saw statues of winged horses rearing at the sea, and an important-looking building, exuding status with its prime position, its rows of palms trees that were as orderly as troops in a parade ground, and its stark, black perimeter fence. To my left was an open plaza, and on the other side of that was a grand old building with an ornate façade in dull red and white. It was towards this building that we turned, and as I read the building’s lapidary title I also noticed its crumbling paint - and then my eyes travelled to the wooden balconies on the multi-story buildings that flanked the paradisiacal Teatro Cartagena.
I had read that most of the hostels were in one of the older neighbourhoods close to the centre, called Getsemani, and I asked the driver if that was where we were. He nodded and I looked out again to watch the wooden balconies slide past. A park ran by on my left. He turned and then turned again and once more I was lost, totally reliant on his local knowledge and goodwill, trusting this man who I had paid and who had bought me a cup of coffee from a street vendor. The first hostel we stopped at was full, my driver found out, yelling out of his window to the reception, so we went to another. It had space. My driver collected his finder’s fee from the hostel and left me in Getsemani.
I wish I had stayed in Getsemani. If I have one regret about my time in Cartagena it is that I did not stay there. I think - I know - that my time here would have been vastly different if that had been the case. My favourite place in the city, a plaza in front of a church (one of many plazas in front of churches in the city, and the country, and the continent), where people from the neighbourhood and beyond gather in the evening and do little but pass the time in company, is in Getsemani. But I chose another neighbourhood for my own reasons and I would not change that history, because good things came of it.
Tourism, while no longer the city’s only economic engine, has for many years been why Cartagena has not slipped back into the sea. It has traditionally been the playground of the gentry, who came down from the cool, high plateaus of the interior to sip on cocktails and revel for a while in the balmy Caribbean vivaciousness - and Colombia is nothing if not reverent of the shape of tradition. The city remains the playground of the rich. Luxury apartments are rented by the day at prices that only the apex of Colombian society can afford and a trip to the beach is rarely without the sight of a young man ripping by on a jet ski, spouting a jet of water into the air behind it.
Well-off Colombians are not the only ones to have enjoyed the city. It has been a favourite of other Latin Americans who stopped in to enjoy its delights. And even in the worst of times Cartagena maintained a reputation as a relatively safe city. Cruise liners continued to stop here even in the days when bomb blasts had ceased to be news for the average Colombian.
In the last few years, the idea of Colombia as an almost mythical bedlam of uber wealthy narcotics cartels and leftist terrorists all fertilizing the ground with spent machine gun shells, hurling explosives, kidnapping and torturing in an ungodly free-for-all has been giving way to the new image that the country is coaxing along. Ask any Colombian and they will tell you this: Colombia is now safe. You will not get shot or kidnapped, unless you go looking for it. The tourism board has refined this message into a little nugget of communications genius: El riesgo es que te quieras quedar, which roughly translates as “The only risk is that you’ll want to stay.”
I have found that Colombians are proud of their country and the progress it has made. They want people to know that there is more to Colombia than Pablo Escobar and The FARC. Their enthusiasm - egged on, I think, by a bruised hope for the respect that Colombia’s reputation has denied them - was picked up by the first cautious wave of foreign travellers that took the chance and ventured into the pariah country. ‘The undiscovered gem of South America’ was a phrase that came up in ebullient reports, in which the authors’ genuine surprise and delight rang true.
As the news spread, the country began to receive more than the brave and adventurous, and the favourable reports began to snowball. Currently, Colombia is something of a darling child. People are still whispering about it, but the whispers have hit the mainstream. Don’t tell anyone else, the headlines scream, indicating that the country is now established on the backpacker trail. Holidaying families too are no longer strangers to the country that used to be an easy target for the amateur comic.
The man who is most often given credit for the ‘new’ Colombia is the country’s most recent ex-president, Alvaro Uribe Velez. He is something of a hero to Colombians, having managed to achieve what others had not: secure passage through the country. Using what I have often heard described as a ‘firm hand’ he pushed the rebels back further and further into the countryside so that they now exist in small pockets and in camps across the border.
Uribe would almost certainly still be president if the constitutional court had allowed it. He was denied the chance to run for a third term, and passed on the mantle to his chosen successor, Juan Manual Santos, the former Minister of Defence and scion of one of Colombia’s elite families.
An election that many had assumed would be nothing more than a formality unexpectedly turned into a real contest when an eccentric former mayor of Bogotá garnered a substantial support base. For a while the country became polarised…publicly polarised…as people rushed to support their chosen candidate. People could be seen with wristbands with the colours and names of the ballot they would cast. Debates began in cafes and bars and, as I witnessed, in at least one working environment, more than once. These debates were not circumspect. Latin American passion and fervour found a home, and people seemed to feel their convictions deeply and dramatically. I was told by one Colombian that if Santos won she did not know what she would do. She wouldn’t want to call herself Colombian anymore. I asked her if she would leave and she shook her head and told me that she probably would not be able to, but she also didn’t think she could live in a country run by ‘that man’. I heard Antanas Mockus, the popular contender, being maligned with similar passion.
Uribe leant his considerable weight to the debate. That Mockus was unfit, or at least not yet fit, to rule the country was his basic stance. He advocated his former cabinet member on the grounds that as minister of defence he had been active with the issues. What many Colombians disagreed on however, was, in Colombia’s new dawn, which of those issues should take precedence.
One of the first things I did at the hostel was to send a confirmation to all concerned that I had arrived. I’d not been able to communicate on my bus journey and I wanted to reassure the folks back home (‘You’d better buy a bulletproof vest,’ my mother had warned when I’d announced my destination). I also wanted to see, of course, if my inbox had any good news on the employment front.
I discovered that one response included an interview date that had already elapsed, and there was a reply from a previously-unheard-from potential employer that informed me that they had no vacancies. I was not overly concerned. The best of the bunch, it seemed, was a position teaching at a bi-lingual private school. Out of the responses I had received, the one from this school had been the most positive. The third option that was (possibly) on the table was a language school that I’d corresponded with before I even left South Africa, but which I’d decided not to bet on due to the listless response I’d received from its administrators. I emailed all three potentials, and then decided that I should have a look at the city before I made any rash decisions and signed on a dotted line that I simultaneously hoped would be offered to me.
I grabbed a map at the reception desk and walked out. It’s a tactic of mine to do this in a new place, to walk around aimlessly. Ironically, in the bigger, more sophisticated cities I often don’t bother with the map. Once you get well and truly lost, you can always find some form of public transport that will shuttle you neatly into a well-known hub and you can re-orientate yourself. In the smaller cities my challenged sense of direction can get easily baffled amongst narrow, subtly curving streets, and more than once I’ve worked up a mild pique before I’ve been able to work out my way back, or given up and pulled the map out of my pocket.
Dulled by lack of sleep and the grind of bus tyres, I looked around. I had been excited by my first sight of the city, and I was still excited, but a film with the translucence of cellophane hung grubbily between reality and me. I turned down a long narrow street and noticed that only one side of the sidewalk was occupied. A quick step out of the shade informed me why. It was only mid-morning, around nine o’clock, and already the heat was invasive enough to get my skin prickly with dampness. Direct sun made a surprising difference. There was only enough room for one on the sidewalk so I stepped on and off the pavement to overtake other strollers, whom either walked with the nonchalant voluptuousness of immortals, or with the bounce of the hustler. I also had to step off from time to time to brush past the various carts and stands that sold a variety of cheap consumables from the sidewalk. The road posed no danger. The neighbourhood was light of cars, and when they did come down the road – usually yellow taxis small enough to ridicule - they would sound their horns with more than fair warning.
My stomach began to get insistent and I started looking around for a place for breakfast. There was no shortage. I surmised that this was because of the neighbourhood’s role as the heartland of backpackerdom. An abundance of small stores and eateries and various hospitality services were all nestled in with what seemed to be local residences. Buildings were painted in a variety of colours and the facades were routinely worn and seedy. The occasional new enterprise jarred with a fresh, evenly painted exterior. I finally popped into a small deli of only two tables and had a plate of eggs and toast, and some freshly squeezed juice.
It took a day before I received my first reply. The others took longer. The good news was that they were all positive. All three potential employers were interested and wanted to interview me. I had a few days before the first of these interviews, with the private school, which I used to continue to explore the city on foot, and to learn how to speak the language I had committed to living in. I’d arrived on the continent with only a few hours of language tapes behind me, and had been well aware that without Spanish my life was going to be immeasurably harder. I had since had that proven to me in real world terms. So with some time on my hands I knuckled down and continued to try to suck in as much language as I could.
I had walked over to the old city, walked its byways and narrow streets. It was small but deceptively labyrinthine. The best and worst of the modern world were jumbled in with the best and worst of the old. There were sleek enterprises and fine restaurants, stores crammed with cheap, cheaply made goods and others overflowing with hammocks and woven bags and other tourist goods. There were stately old buildings that had not aged a day and others that were arthritic and decaying, windows boarded and trees sprouting from cracks in the walls. Churches and cathedrals carried the stale air and grandeur of antiquity, and the plazas were relaxed little oases, each with its own distinctive character, and some came complete with horse drawn carriages with red seats. All this could be found in a sickle of pockmarked defensive walls constructed out of dappled grey blocks that spanned no more than about a square kilometre.
But I’d felt distracted as I’d walked around. I wasn’t at ease. This was not casual observing but an investor’s appraisal of the city. I’d not stayed put in a single place for years – my longest stay had been about nine months - and I had felt that it was time I did something a little more permanent, for my own sanity. I had another reason to look hard at the city. I had a girlfriend, a girl who’d just finished up her master’s degree and was due to join me. Like many intelligent, warm-hearted twenty-somethings she wanted to work for an NGO, and she had been more inclined to Bogotá than Cartagena because she suspected the capital would be a better place to find NGO employment. I’d given priority to Cartagena because I wanted the sea, and, of course, the life: Caribbean vibrance, charm and ease. I did not want to be selfish but I also wanted to live my life for myself. The knowledge of what did, in the end, amount to selfishness pressured me to make a good decision, a decision that she was waiting for while she sat at home recovering from the final strait of her dissertation.
I got offered sex four times in the first three days that I was in Cartagena. I had been warned before I’d left for Colombia that it is no place to go if you have a girlfriend. The girls, I’d been told, would leave my jaw hanging, their Catholicism notwithstanding. Unfortunately for me though, the solicitations I got were not from arresting beauties. In fact, in two cases, they came from men. The local market for sex tourism was at the one end of the road that my hostel was on, on Called Media Luna. This did not surprise me too much. Of course the girls would be where the money was, where the men (and women) distant from judgement were. Of course they would try their luck with a passer-by, in case he was too naive to notice what they were selling. What did surprise me was when, as I was walking along the beach in the high-income neighbourhood of Bocagrande, I was pursued twice by men who went out of their way to hone in on me, to offer me women. Anything I like, I was told (in English), and they had girls for every taste. Boardshorts on and towel in hand in a noticeably glitzy neighbourhood, I was a little unprepared for their advance, and wondered how many men had instantly abandoned their towels and beach gear in favour of a negotiated tryst. Answer: enough for the pimps to keep pushing for it.
These encounters and the generally easy-to-find flesh helped firm up a few things in my mind. One of those things was this: with prostitution that conspicuous, surely there was a proportionate desperation hidden behind it.
Later that afternoon, as I was walking along another beachside road, I was approached by a group of women, all black and thin with deep creases in their skin, all carrying buckets. The leading woman pointed out that I was sunburnt. She removed a bottle of after-sun lotion from her bucket and said something in the rapid, chopped Spanish that is spoken on the Northern coast of Colombia. I didn’t understand a thing, but aware that some kind of transaction would probably be expected, I waved them off, adding a firm ‘No, gracias.’ She told me to be calm, to relax, cooing in placation. I stood a little stiffly as she grabbed my hand and extended my arm to apply a little lotion. I wondered if this was merely a woman evincing some of the outstanding Colombian hospitality I had heard about, and relaxed a little to allow her to do the same with my other arm. However when she moved behind me and began to massage my trapezium it became obvious that the woman was not being motivated by kindness. I stepped away and told the woman that I had very little money on me. It was true. I’d brought enough for a bottle of water. She proceeded to say something else. I made out the sum ‘ten thousand’ and realised that she expected payment. I gave her what I had, about a thousand five hundred pesos, and then amidst the clucks and squawks of her compatriots she suggested, if I understood correctly, that I should go to my hotel and fetch the rest for her. They settled on the pavement to wait for me.
I later learned that these herds of women were notorious in Cartagena. They worked the beaches, offering and sometimes forcing massages on people. Unable to find work formally they have tried to wrench open a niche in a market that they consider fair game. After all tourism, as it does, has taken the best of what the city has to offer. Surely, the good citizens of the city should receive some recompense. Enterprising locals have done their best to create a sluice from the top tier of the economy down into their own lives, most often by selling goods on the streets. Others drive taxis. The luckier ones manage to find formal employment, which in Colombia is rarely stable and often makes pressing demands on one’s time. Even bi-lingual lawyers struggle to enter contracts that are long enough to give them peace of mind. This was the situation of a friend of mine, a woman from Bogotá who was working on a humanitarian project near the coast. She was only ever certain of an income for a few months at best, and usually was only told if her contract was being renewed or extended a day or two before it expired. I was more appalled than she was. She told me that was how her entire working life had been. She didn’t like it, but she had no choice. She was willing to accept it because she wanted to work in Colombia; she was eager to make it a better place. Eventually her contract was not renewed, and because she couldn’t afford to stay on while she waited to hear back from other employers, she returned to Bogota, to live rent-free at her parents’ house. A thirty-one year old living with his or her parents is not uncommon in Colombia.
My first professional indication that time was not taken seriously on the coast was when I went for my first interview. I had been told to go to the school’s elementary school and a bus would transport me to their main campus. I arrived early, not much, perhaps ten minutes or so – and was first looked at by a puzzled secretary, who then phoned someone and nodded in comprehension, and then politely asked me to take a seat. The bus arrived about half an hour later, and proceeded to remain stationed outside for another half an hour. The tardiness of the bus was not too disconcerting. I’d suspected that Caribbean time was, like African time, more of a general concept than a hard, empirical fact. What did disconcert me was when another candidate for the same job arrived twenty minutes or so after I did. I had not counted on competition. I was further disconcerted when I arrived at the school’s main campus, about half an hour out of town, past mangroves and open tracts of land that were in the initial stages of development. I was welcomed and ushered in the meet the school’s headmistress – and then told that they were delighted I wished to put myself forward for the job…Was I aware that the position was only available in August? I gulped. It was early February, very early February.
I found myself in another office, having another interview a few days later. I mentioned that I was only looking for a six-month contract as I had something lined up in August. My interviewer frowned and brought his hand to his lips, hummed thoughtfully, and then told me that it might be possible, but he’d have to get approval; they usually insisted on a minimum period of a year. We talked some more, and I liked what I heard, so by the time I reached the door I was already half convinced. A third party in the interview, the academic co-ordinator for the language school I was at, walked with me down the stairs, chatting amiably. When I put some questions to her she stopped and suggested that I go to the staffroom and chat to whomever I found there. It seemed like a good idea, and I was impressed by the confidence it implied, so I accepted.
I spent over an hour chatting to people there, trying to get information on the school, as well as some hints and tips on living in the city. I had begun looking for an apartment but was having no luck. Advertising was not an important part of doing business in Cartagena, I had discovered. Advertising was for tourists. Anything else was done by word of mouth.
I ended up talking to a tall, athletically slim girl with auburn hair, a peacefully determined jaw, and a fractionally off-centre gaze. She struck me immediately as competent, and as we chatted I got the impression that we were a similar kind of person, with similar interests and priorities. When I mentioned that I was looking for housing, she said that she was barely less new in town than I was. She’d found temporary accommodation but was still looking around, and she said she’d help me out if I wanted.
True to her word, she did help me out. A lot actually. Firstly she helped me get a local SIM card and get my phone ‘unlocked’ in a back alley repair shop. Because of that, hers was the first number I got in Colombia. We made plans to meet the following day to go hunting for an apartment in the neighbourhood she was staying in. She liked the leafy-ness of it, and the proximity of a beach to jog on. It sounded good to me.
It was only the next day, as I watched her descend the steps of a local supermarket towards me, that I was struck by how attractive she was. Hers was a mix of conventional and unconventional beauty, and it beamed out at me - and I was momentarily awed. I made a joke about her clothing, and she took it well, didn’t let me get away with it.
We spent the afternoon wandering around her neighbourhood which was to the North of the city, by the airport, looking for signs in windows advertising rental property, and asking around. She helped me communicate when my Spanish failed, which was often.
We spend quite a few days like that, walking around neighbourhoods and following up classified ads, looking for a place to stay. Besides the enormous help that it was to me, I enjoyed it. I felt I had found a friend, and it is rare, I believe, that you find true friends in a lifetime. I felt surer of the city. I decided to stay.
We had known each other for about a week before we discovered the other had a significant other. We were sipping wine outside her temporary home, and she slipped the information into the conversation neatly but of course I heard it loud and clear. I thought perhaps it was for the best; I didn’t want to break any hearts, and I had gained a friend. I mentioned that I too had someone waiting for me but that in all honesty, I wasn’t sure about it. I had been having my doubts for some time, and if anything they’d grown stronger. She took up the topic and mentioned a few of her own doubts. We were both quick to mention that the person we were talking about was a good person, very worthy.
I started work soon after, at the language school. It was situated in the old city, and one of the best things about the job was the walk to and from the school. I took a room in the airport neighbourhood, Crespo, as a temporary measure. We had seen it on the very first day of walking around but I’d dismissed it as a prospect because it was nothing more than a bed and a shower. But it was cheap and the landlady was enthusiastically friendly, with an expectant grin that sometimes bordered on the pathological.
After a week of observing classes, I was given a higgledy-piddledy teaching schedule and ordered to continue observing one class a day, which I tended to use to study Spanish quietly in a corner. I used what free time I had to continue to hunt for an apartment, squeezing it into the uneven breaks my schedule allowed. I began work at 8:45 and finished my last class at 8pm and taught/observed for eight hours a day. In effect, with commuting, this ate up most of the day, with the breaks not being long enough to achieve anything much. This was not the worst schedule I received whilst working for the school.
In my interview we’d negotiated about scheduling and part of the reason I’d accepted was the favourable hours I was offered, but when I tried to meet with the man I’d interviewed with to remind him of our agreements, he was chronically unavailable. I also had questions about my hourly rate of pay. After some time I approached the more-available academic co-ordinator about it and was told that the agreement I’d entered into entitled the school to schedule me as they saw fit. Anything that was spoken about in my interview was to be taken up with the man who seemed to be avoiding a meeting with me. I smiled, said I understood (and I believe I did), and reminded her that I had as yet not actually signed anything.
When I mentioned this to one of the other teachers I’d met at the school, a smooth, young, wry, wisecracking Caucasian from Detroit whose classes I’d been assigned to observe, he summed up the situation nicely. We were sitting having a beer at a local bar after classes. ‘The school’s approach to hiring new teachers,’ he told me, ‘is a bit like a sixteen-year old guy’s approach to getting laid. They’ll say just about anything to get you into bed but after that…’
It was during those first weeks at the school that, in a step that was agonising and necessary, I broke up with my girlfriend. It had become obvious to both of us, I think, that I did not want her to come, and rather than drag it out longer than it already had, I ended it.
The ground floor of Cartagena’s two-tier economy can be encountered at Bazurto market. It is just down the road from the city’s flashiest mall, Caribe Plaza, and the two worlds, practically side by side, do not mix. Bazurto market is a warren of wooden stalls and actual buildings that lies between the main avenue that runs roughly East-West through greater Cartagena and a pelican-filled lagoon. Some of it lies on paving, some on dirt and you criss-cross with multitudes beneath canvas and concrete and open sky to procure anything from fish and vegetables, to clothing, to beds and frying pans, to radios, to hammer and nails, to detergent, alcohol, and rat poison. In short, it is a market in the third-world style: busy, crowded, uncomfortable, odoriferous, and vibrant.
Caribe Plaza on the other hand is a white-tiled, air-conditioned, multi-level building filled from top to bottom with brand names (in contrast to Bazurto these are genuine) and well-dressed teenagers.
It was not long before I’d visited both. In Caribe Plaza I indulged in the film adaption of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which played as part of an annual film festival, and I bought myself a pair of running shoes. Bazurto market quickly became my go-to place for anything household related.
It takes less than five minutes to walk between the two marketplaces. This juxtaposition is not rare in the city. Looking inland from Marbella beach yields a vista that includes a shoreline of hi-rise apartments and a background of verdant hills covered in shacks, with a crown of radio beacons at the crest. From the beach it looks pleasant and poetic and not at all disturbing.
Fishermen throw hand-lines into the sea from tiny jetties beneath mirrored heights at the back end of Bocagrande. Luxury four-wheel-drives with men in sunglasses at the wheel, suffering from a particular form of blindness (which is by no means exclusive to Colombia), can be seen driving past donkey carts, beggars, and shoe shine boys. This is the way of things.
Progress, as evidenced by the proud public display of statistics such as a 400% increase of FDI into Colombia in the past six years, seems to be sailing past the indigent of Cartagena.
Infrastructure projects, such as a current effort to widen the boulevard between the old city and Bocagrande seem to be directed at the tourist and commercial areas, and not at the more general citizenry of Cartagena. This could be part of a strategy to broaden income even further before distributing it, but even if this is so, there has been a cost.
In 1999 Colombia had a Gini Co-efficient of 0.576 making it one of the most unequal societies in the Americas. It is beaten by Brazil with a co-efficient of 0.591 (calculated in 1998) which compares roughly with South Africa (in 1995). This measure of inequality, while high, is by no means staggering. Brazil and South Africa have been considered the success stories of their respective continents, both weathering the global financial crisis of 2008/9 (circa) relatively well. What is far more disturbing than the unsurprising fact of Colombian inequality is that since the last calculation of this indicator of wealth distribution, in 1996, Colombia has gotten worse.
Cartagena is not famed for its beaches. Ask the locals where the best beaches are and they will point you out of the city, but not necessarily far.
Accessible by boat or by land there is a long spit of land that juts out westwards of Cartagena that is separated from the mainland by a narrow channel of seawater, no bigger than a river. On this piece of land is a long white beach with small cabins and beach shack restaurants, some of which rent out hammocks by the night. During the day, and especially on weekends and public holidays, the beach is packed with day-trippers, and, in the moon of aquamarine that laps at the shore, the many boats that brought them there float at anchor. But those anchors all come up by mid-to-late afternoon and the crowd is borne away. With that the beach assumes a more tranquil attitude, which may be enjoyed by those who choose to stay.
Typical of the drearily descriptive approach towards geographic nomenclature that the Spaniards (and indeed many other pioneering nations) have so often displayed, the beach carries the uninspired but nonetheless pleasant sounding name of Playa Blanca.
The first time I went to this beach, it was with a group made up mostly out of teachers from the school I worked at and a few friends and their friends. It was a multinational group, representing every continent except for Australasia, but because the invitation had been extended very openly the larger group soon dissolved into its pre-existing bundles, and this made for a loosely social, yet still pleasantly private outing. After lunching on some fried fish and coconut rice, the typical local fare, and a day that didn’t amount to much more than lazing - in the sun, in the calm, warm water - most of the group decided to return, and the remaining handful of us hired hammocks for the night. Slowly the evening pulled in, and soon night, with its hood of stars, covered the sky.
‘You guys are such a great couple,’ someone complimented my friend and me.
‘Who wants some more rum?’ I offered as a response, laughing, knowing it was true, and knowing that she knew it too; knowing also that while we were both laughing because of the unerring accuracy of the comment, we were laughing just as hard because we also knew that neither of us was about to admit that truth out loud.
Later (I’m not sure how much later, time was lost), alone and happy, with nothing more than the gentle swish of waves, white sand and driftwood, touch, trust, a sense of fun, and each other’s warmth to guide us, the girl who was my friend and I silently acknowledged that truth and collapsed into each other - and, sublimely, became even happier.
Eventually I found an apartment. To be more accurate the (very beautiful) girl found it, and then decided against it, and I asked if it would be all right if I considered the place. She said yes, and then later changed her mind and said no, and eventually a coin decided who would take it.
It was small, and cute, and less than twenty metres away from the Caribbean Sea. It was painted white and had a tiled courtyard over which hung a bougainvillea, and it was this courtyard more than anything else that sold me on it - because the rest of the house, while adequate, was a little bit dark and had not a stick of furniture. The prospect of private outdoor space, room to breathe, was something I’d not found yet, and I had visions of relaxation and birdsong and hammocks.
My initial attempt to secure the apartment fell to pieces when, after some confusion, it was made clear that I would need two, not one, co-signers on the rental (a requirement which could be waived with a deposit of a mere half-year’s rent). I approached the owner and proposed a private deal, and a few weeks later had a response relayed to me by a third party, who told me that the landlady wanted to see me. After another spurt of paperwork and related administration, although admittedly less than the first round, I was given the keys.
Relieved and triumphant, I opened the door for the first time, only to discover that the lovely little courtyard had had half of its tiles ripped up and there was a sizable pit in the centre. There had been issues with the pipes I was told. My response was measured, thinking they possibly didn’t mention it because of the frustrating nature of communicating with me. My Spanish was still not strong enough for anything vaguely technical. I moved in, bought some basic furniture, and waited for the courtyard to be fixed ‘soon’. My joy at having my own space and the ability to prepare meals, of having more than just a bed to sit on, after about two months of hostel dorms, buses, and a shoebox of a room, overrode any apprehensions I’d felt when I opened the door to find less than I’d expected, as well as any concerns about the alacrity of that coastal promise: ‘soon’.
That is, until it started raining. The seasons shifted and it went from being hot to being hot. Winter had arrived, with temperatures upwards of 30 degrees. The only real difference was that the constant ocean breeze was exchanged for rain. And for me this was a problem, because I discovered that my roof was a sieve. It took a week before my complaint received any response, which was not too dire since the rains had only just begun, and had not reached the near daily frequency yet. However soon I was living in a swamp, with buckets, pots, and Tupperware containers spread throughout the house, cartoon-like, to vainly try to stem the tide. I was told nothing could be done until the roof was dry, so a break in the weather was required. I was stoic about it, secretly even being amused by the fairy-tale, beatnik ridiculousness of it. Once it was so bad that my bedroom flooded and I slept that night on a sodden mattress, listening to the sound of drips.
Rain cripples Cartagena. Thanks to inadequate and poorly designed drainage many of the roads flood rapidly, especially in the old city. Cars wade delicately through the water, and people stand up on shop stairs, cloistered beneath awnings like doves. Umbrella prices skyrocket. Some souls roll up their trousers, hold their shoes in their hands, and cross the Ganges. Business more or less stops; at the very least rain is taken as an acceptable excuse for arrival so late it may be taken for absence.
Shortly the weather broke, if only for a while, and I arranged to drop off my keys with the landlady (as there was only one set) who would watch over the workmen who were coming to fix the problem. I arrived back home after work to find nothing had been done. I asked about it and was told they’d looked at it and had spent the remainder of the day purchasing supplies. By the end of that week, the workmen had painted a coating of waterproof paint on a single wall of the bedroom. I was baffled. Also, small items had disappeared, and I couldn’t remember for sure if they were somewhere in the chaotic disorder my home had turned into in my efforts to keep things dry.
By the end of the saga my house had flooded completely several times, and incompletely many more. I developed Shaolin mastery with a mop and my mattress had begun growing gills - and some green stuff. To what I believe to have been the genuine embarrassment of my landlady, it took over two months before I saw any real improvement in the roof. Finally, when I announced my intension to vacate, giving a month’s notice, I was sternly reminded by a lawyer who was acting on behalf on my landlady that if I broke the contract I was obligated to continue payments until the first six months of the contractual term were over. This stance was reversed quickly when I responded with a similar legal ‘reminder’. It was almost funny.
A lot of what I know about Cartagena and Colombia I learned from my students. They represented a middle-to-upper income slice of the local population, the slice that could afford the school. Apart from that bracketing there was an agreeable amount of demographic variety to them. Ages ranged from the mid-teens to the mid-50’s, men and women were about evenly represented, and there was a mix of races that approached proportional. Professionals and members of the armed forces tended to come before or after work, and dependants/the unemployed tended to fill in the slots in the middle of the day. You could tell the time of day just by taking a look at the average age of the class.
During the presidential elections, when billboards of monstrously sized smiling faces could be seen along the roads and people tended to think that one or other of those faces represented disaster, my students agreed on two things: corruption and Gandhi.
Few hands were not immediately in the air when I asked who had ever paid a bribe or seen one being paid. That question was my routine follow up after the introductory one, when I asked students what they considered the biggest issues in Colombia to be. After a few classes with this lead-in my follow up question became mechanical, so predictable and overwhelming was the first answer. The subject got impassioned commentary from many. They were tired of it, they told me.
The guerrillas, said some, were old news. It was a problem that had been taken care of, and Uribe had done a good job with that…but now it was time to move on and concentrate on the many social goals that should be pursued. These tended to be the Partido Verde supporters, the Party led by Mokus, but party affiliation was not always a safe gauge of opinion.
Did they think it was likely that corruption would be dealt with by an incoming president, I would ask. The charge of the atmosphere would immediately dissipate. Answers seemed almost embarrassed. They did not want to display their frustration to a foreigner. We hope so, was the most common answer, given with the plural pronoun.
Another class I taught a few times was based on the famous philanthropistAlbertSchweitzer and on the words and deeds of the Mahatma. I wanted to know what Colombians thought about pacifism. There was no pervasive attitude. I got the same answers I could have expected anywhere. Some thought it was blatantly imbecilic and pathetic, others liked the idea of diplomacy but approved of physical aggression when talking failed, and a minority believed that pacifism was morally courageous and preferable. However not a single person believed that the approach would work in Colombia. In Colombia you need guns. In Colombia compromise doesn’t work. This is a violent country I was told several times, with some people concluding you cannot succeed in ruling it without violence. The FARC, they were adamant, would not have been pushed back without it.
Are the FARC still a problem, I would ask. Not so much any more, came the reply, although with a less celebratory tone than usually accompanies that declaration. Nevertheless their presence has not been forgotten. It looms within and without Colombia still, and an effective end to that lingering, to the threat of reversal to Colombia’s present climb, is important in the hearts of many Colombians.
The desire to build on success was balanced by the fear of regression. Safety and progress seemed to be what was being demanded from a future president – and the two main contenders seemed to represent a slightly heavier emphasis on one or the other. Colombians went to the polls twice, and in the end the man who emerged victorious was Juan Manuel Santos. Colombians had voted for Safety.
Corruption, in my opinion, is a symptom of societies marked by inequality and disenfranchisement. It is also, in my opinion, a form of spite, even if its aim is often off.
The ruling elite of Colombia has a difficult mandate. It will be hard for them to tackle corruption without striking at themselves.
This is more than the mathematical logic that if the wealth is spread more evenly the rich stand to lose, unless of course the economy is given a miracle growth formula.
In a country where, as rumour has it, a few bags of cement will buy an entire community’s votes, and it is exceptional for senior or well-salaried positions to go to someone who doesn’t have a family member in a high place, the people who are tasked with the amelioration of Colombian society are of the very same ilk that encouraged what exists today.
‘I’m from a very important family’ one man said to me one evening. I’d mistakenly sat at a private table on the balcony of a salsa club, unaware that the table had been reserved. He informed me of the fact after a brief eyeballing but then waved off my apology and told me it was all right. He went on tell me of his political ambitions and then gave me a brief verbal CV. The man could have been anyone, a poser desperate for some kind of adulation or he could have been exactly who he said he was. What was striking was that he chose to introduce himself by giving his credentials as someone connected, not as someone accomplished – and he clearly expected the introduction to impress. Over the din of the music he repeated his surname twice, so I would hear it correctly.
Names are passports, and the old, powerful families, usually with a lineage that leads back to Spain, are few. Nepotism and cronyism closes the door of opportunity for many Colombians and advances others. Merit has become undervalued.
The most senior position at the English language school I taught at was occupied by a man who was unable to speak a word of English. It was uncertain, and speculated on sportingly by staff, what his immediate subordinate, the man whom I had interviewed with, actually did in a day. Some students who did not make the grades or who were chronically absent even though the school stipulated a minimum attendance requirement, were given favours, such as being able to ‘re-write’ the exact same exam they had written the day before, or have marks re-adjusted. Sometimes the school asked teachers to ‘reconsider’ grades, sometimes they didn’t bother. When one man was allowed to write an exam under circumstances I’d been told to disallow others for, I had it explained to me by a member of the admin staff. The man was a relative of one of the school’s senior executives.
I became frustrated in this environment. Excellence was not expected nor encouraged. Efforts at professionalism by teachers were undermined by a lack of professionalism by the academic office and administrative staff, and students, perhaps being aware of this, did not seem to expect excellence either. I became a mediocre teacher, competent but not precise, and this bugged me. Or rather it bored me. I doubt many on the teaching staff felt passionate about their jobs, and yet the school ticked by, providing a service that was arguably the best in town.
Few hands are clean. In the course of rescuing a country from chaotic times, the private and individual question of who or what one feels responsibility for was not a simple decision. The country and its various elements were not aligned, and integrity became a matter of deciding what ideals, concepts and people you owed allegiance to. Your country, your source of income, your family, yourself? What made sense to you? Some would likely say, even now, that with so little to count on, it was a time for desperate measures.
Many in the present, and previous, leadership are linked with private militias that were formed in the 60’s to combat terrorists and then turned rogue; harassing the peasantry, confiscating land, engaging in the narcotics trade, and thus becoming as much of a terror as the terrorists they were meant to eradicate. These groups, the paramilitares, are said to have been thought up and financed by Colombia’s elite. Uribe himself is rumoured to have played a part in the formation of paramilitary groups, goaded by the memory of the kidnapping and killing of his father by guerrillas. When he came to power dubious pardons were made, blind eyes turned, and the whole of Colombia saw.
…And the whole of Colombia accepted. The country was being improved, so why not? It was not the first deal struck with the devil in Colombia. Before things got bad, the narcotraficantes were viewed by many as businessmen capitalising on a new market, a market that resided largely in the United States. So not only did the product generate wealth for Colombia, it brought in dollars. And if Americans could not behave themselves, that was no problem of Colombia’s.
It has been a dangerous brand of pragmatism that has ruled Colombian attitudes.
Yet there can be little question that Colombia is emerging from its cocoon of violence, unfolding crumpled wings – and many are now looking at the emerged creature and seeing something beautiful.
As difficult as the necessity to address the country’s inequalities might be for the men and women of the old guard, it would be an injustice to pretend that the government has not put its spade into the issue yet. In acknowledgement of Colombia’s various strata, citizens are categorized on a scale from zero to six based on the quality and scale of development in their residential neighbourhood, something like a neighbourhood Living Standards Measure. Public services such as electricity, gas, and water have different per unit prices depending on the category of the neighbourhood supplied. While it is a progressive system, there is some reciprocity for those who pay higher prices. The better neighbourhoods tend to have fewer interruptions in supply and have better maintained infrastructure and faster response times when faults occur. However, even in these neighbourhoods nothing is guaranteed. Crespo, the neighbourhood I lived in, is categorised a stratum four. I experienced periodic black outs and water cuts, and several times I’ve seen power cables felled, usually by wind and rain and thrashing branches, and they’ve at times stayed live, sparks flying and crackling for hours after the cable came loose.
The strata also determine the price that a citizen will have to pay to avoid military or police service if selected, a selection process that occurs quite literally by lottery. All males are eligible unless they are only children. Females are exempt.
In his first months as president Santos is emerging as something of a diplomat. At the time of his victory at the polls he was a wanted man in neighbouring Ecuador and equally disliked by the always-entertaining president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. Santos had earned this animosity in his former post as Minister of Defence, for conducting raids of guerrilla camps outside of Colombian territory. Chavez officially severed diplomatic ties with Colombia when, in one of his final acts, Uribe accused Venezuela of harbouring Colombian terrorists at a meeting of the Organization of American States.
However when Santos came to power he almost immediately began overtures to his neighbours, and he and Chavez have since publicly kissed and made up, Chavez dressing for the occasion in a tracksuit with the colours of his flag - which are the same colours as Colombia’s. Santos was disappointingly sombre in a dapper suit and tie.
In his inauguration speech, echoing Uribe, Santos also expressed a willingness to talk with the guerrillas, on the stringent conditions that they cease acts of terror, release all hostages, an abandon their recruitment of child soldiers - and presumably enter the political process more formally. Considering that terrorism is the only job most of the guerrillas know, it is unlikely that they will consider the proposition a serious alternative. Their integration into Colombia is probably more difficult to achieve than their exclusion and/or death. They lost their ideology years ago, hurting those they professed to be fighting for, and with that, any true popular support. Now they are little more than bandits with rhetoric, and their only asset is terror. They have little incentive to comply; Santos has little incentive to care.
A car bomb in Bogotá, outside a building that housed a major radio station, the Ecuadorian embassy, and the offices of various politicians, was detonated less than a week after Santos’ inauguration. It has gone unclaimed and is being attributed to leftist rebels. It seems Santos has received his answer.
A few weeks after we returned from the white beach my (superfoxy) partner in crime, developed a stomach complaint. Sickness is common here. Viruses are plentiful and the heat and humidity are heavenly conditions for bacteria. The incidence of stomach complaints is high, and so we didn’t think too much of it at first. But then after a week, and then a month, and then two months, it had not improved. She held off from going to a doctor, partially because were both waiting for our contractually stipulated medical insurance to become active, months after we’d begun work. Despite a heroic attitude and attempts to self-palliate, the problem persisted. Eventually, she went to see someone. After a series of doctors, specialists and tests, none of which inspired much confidence, no conclusion was reached.
She called one day, and I walked down through the neighbourhood to meet her at a small café where she told me she had decided to leave. Even though I had half expected that news, my heart still jumped. We had both had ideas of leaving. After months of working in Cartagena, neither of us was convinced that it was the place we wanted to be, and on some days we had been sure that it was not, but we’d both decided, loosely, that we’d give it a bit more time.
When she told me about her decision I had already decided that I was not going to stay for the full year of my contract but I did not want to leave immediately. I had the feeling that there was still something more…something the city was holding out on me. I hadn’t unlocked the place yet. I had known that she was more disenchanted than I was, but I was also more used to heat and third-world tomfoolery - and I hadn’t been dealing with constant physical discomfort for months on end.
I asked her when she wanted to leave. She wasn’t sure. In about two weeks if she could, but probably a month, she replied.
When I first arrived in Cartagena I emailed a girl in Medellin, a city best known for the drug cartel it was home to, whom I’d once shared a house with for a few months in Cape Town, South Africa. It was in the first few days when I was still unsure how much of a chance I should give the city; I had not yet unpacked my bags. I asked her for some advice: was Cartagena a good city to work in? Should I rather look in Medellin, which had seemed extremely pleasant when I’d passed through?
She told me unequivocally that I should go to Medellin, or Bogotá as a second choice. Cartagena is a great city for a holiday, she said, but it is not a good place to work. The people are lazy.
That the costeños, or coastal peoples, of Colombia deserve this reputation is something that I suspect many costeños would readily admit to, whilst laughing wickedly. The meaning of life on the coast is not work but fiesta: dance, revelry, musica. Work is what you do to survive, to enable the celebration. Even though many costeños work long days for little reward and then have those work days extended by buses that hobble uncomfortably through suburbs to get home, actual dedication to work is rare. In some cases survival is hard enough. In others, people don’t see the point in trying any harder than they have to.
A student of mine had told me that he was going to work in the United States. Like many Colombians he had family there. In his case his relatives owned a business, and he was leaving Colombia to go to work for them. Six weeks later I was walking down the road, only to see him where I’d seen him often before, having a smoke break outside the boutique fashion store his parents owned. I expressed surprised. Had he not left for the States yet? He’d gone, he told me, but he didn’t like it. ‘All they do there is work. All day! You wake up, go to work, get home, go to sleep, and then go back to work. It’s crazy! They don’t party. They don’t see their friends, drink beer. No,’ he said shaking his head and smirking with disbelief. ‘I like here better.’
‘The less they know, the less someone will ask them to do something’ is how another teacher explained his take on students’ diligence, a comment which could aptly describe the stereotypical costeño.
It has been true in my experiences, again mainly through my students, that lives in Cartagena are hermetic and that curiosity is blinkered. Few have travelled, most having left the city two or three times in their lives, if at all. Most costeños I have met have been enthusiastic about their own culture, which is lively and inextricably linked to dance and music, some of it deriving, audibly so, from African ancestry. Knowledge of other cultures is generally limited, with the exception of that big brother to the North, the USA, whose spiritual presence has travelled here, as everywhere, through movies and television. Baseball is popular here, second in popularity only to the most pervasive South American religion, soccer.
While I have met some impressively well-travelled, well-read, well-informed, freethinking individuals on the coast I have been tested at times with the opposite. On one occasion during an activity for a teacher’s workshop, I had to explain to two gentlemen who both obviously had African blood in them, that Africa was not a homogenous whole, that it was a place of multiple countries with a vast array of cultures and customs. They expressed surprise and, to their credit, were grateful for the information. I was not unduly surprised by their conception of Africa, I had encountered it before. Even in Africa there is ignorance of Africa. What surprised me was that these men had been so incurious about their own history. They had not thought to find out. Or perhaps, for better or worse, the reality of slave boats has been wiped out of the psyche of Latin Americans.
I have been asked few questions about my own continent, except for one, which as often as I hear it, still amuses me. When my accent was not identified as American and the students could see that I was white-skinned, they asked me where I was from. Immediately, the frowns would appear, faces perplexed but trying hard not to let on that they were so uncertain. An area of their brains seldom visited was being probed.
‘Teacher, are there white people in Africa?’
The same teacher said who told me that students resist learning because know-how might get them into work also said to me one evening, ‘This place won’t change. Come back when you’re eighty and you’ll see – it’ll be exactly the same. But somehow,’ he added, ‘the place keeps going. Somewhere there’s an economist looking at this place and scratching his head.’
This man, who is not a person I would characterise as negative at all – the opposite in fact, has lived in this city much longer than I have and I defer to his judgement. Moreover, I concur. Cartagena and its citizens don’t want to change. That would require work and application, and that would interrupt life.
Costeños are loud. They don’t talk, they shout. Music isn’t worth listening to unless the neighbours can hear it. If you can talk, it isn’t loud enough. Speakers are of prehistoric dimensions and can be found anywhere: houses, cars, beaches, country roads, market places…You don’t have to go far before you hear the inanely cheery music that is favoured here, music that usually reminds me of fairground tunes – pleasant and amusing on occasion, in small doses, psychological torture when it continues all day and night only to cease sometime around sunrise.
On the coast it is the man with the biggest speakers that wins. Sometimes these duels leapfrog the borders of sanity and resemble something like an experiment in discord. Speakers the size of (large) refrigerators are placed mere meters away from each other. Each is turned to full volume and plays a different song. I don’t understand. In the melee of sound I can’t make out any of the tunes, my brain feels like it is going to explode, and I run for cover. And yet as I run, I look over my shoulder and see Colombians, patrons of the two or three small stores that are playing the screech or beachgoers seated at the rear of their cars, and they are seated happily, their legs swaying to a beat, a smile on their faces.
Two days after the (sublimely sexy) girl left to return to California, I handed in my notice of resignation.
On the day she was supposed to leave, we were given a reprieve. Her flight was cancelled, and as I walked down the road at the end of my workday, dragging my heels, I received a call.
‘Come’ she said, ‘I’m at the Hotel Caribe.’
And so we spent another last evening together, this time in five star luxury, sponsored by the airline. She shared a wide double bed in an air-conditioned room and in the morning we said goodbye for the second time. I lingered and because of that was running late for work, and even with a taxi ride direct to the school I still walked into the classroom a few minutes late. I was smiling and sad.
As I write this she is setting off on a motorcycle journey across the United States. She got back home to San Diego and immediately after touch down began to prepare.
A love of motorcycles is one of the many things that drew us together. She is an ex-journalist who worked in the motorcycle industry for years. A few years ago she was one of the few competitive female road racers in America. She will traverse America, solo, off the macadam, along the Trans-American Trail. This is the attitude I fell in love with.
She also has a wedding to get to. She is in the bridal party of one of her best friends this October, on the other side of the country, in Tennessee. I’m hoping to be at that wedding.
I leave this city on the coast in less than a week. I will travel to Guatemala for a month of volunteer work on the shores of Lake Atitlan. In Guatemala, before I leave for the lake, I will apply for a visitor’s visa to the United States, and it is uncertain if I will receive one. I will be applying outside of my official country of residence, a country I’ve not really resided in since university, after having quit my job.
I don’t like passports and borders, and I am especially averse towards visas. I think of all three as forms of discrimination. I also understand that people do not like to pay taxes only for others to receive the benefits, and that people are naturally protective over resources they identify as their own. Some are lucky enough to have been born well-off in rich states, others have had the misfortune to have been born abject in states with a GDP that is similar to the salary of some professional sportsmen. This is the lottery of life.
I do however like passport stamps.
If I am allowed and enabled to enter the USA the plan is this: to purchase a dual-sport motorcycle, and to return to Latin America, the two of us on our rides.
Cartagena is city of contrasts - black and white, rich and poor, day and night, past and present - all occupying the same space like water and oil shaken up inside a jar. And here, the jar keeps shaking. The rhythm of the city ensures that. It is part of Cartagena’s agonizing charm.
I was wrong on that first day I arrived in Cartagena. The longer you stay in Cartagena the wider the concept of the ‘real’ Cartagena becomes.The city explodes out towards the countryside; suburbs that look incredibly self-sufficient can be seen from bus windows after over an hour of winding through greater Cartagena. All of this - the poverty, the congestion, the unattractive suburbia of scattered litter and generic concrete buildings, and the unattractive suburbia of scattered litter and dirt - is as much a part of Cartagena as postcard Cartagena, which is the tiny heart of it all.
This city is beautiful, but I don’t want to live here. Life here has dollops of flavour, and it is possible to revel in seas of sound and dance, to drink cold beaded beer and similarly cold, sweet rum, and to party while warm beads of sweat drip down your shoulder blades…but that freedom and celebration is to combat the other reality: the frustration, the sloppiness and inattention to detail, the lack of care and the lack of knowing why care may be of benefit. There is no hope in this place because tomorrow doesn’t matter. Tomorrow is the same as today, which is the same as yesterday. If something happens it is the will of God, which leaves man exempt for his own lot. For the average Cartagenaro life is hardship and grind, and all of it worth celebrating because even having nothing is not nothing; we all have life.
It is impossible not to love this city in some way for that. It is impossible not to love the city for what it could be as much as for what it is. It is charming and roguish, a Spanish gentleman and a spitting, fast-tongued peon all at once. But unfortunately it is also arrogant and in love with itself, aware of other people’s love for it, and unwilling to change because it is afraid to and because it feels it doesn’t need to…it already has all the attention it needs. Why be better when a quick bit of jive and a fine-toothed chuckle will get what you need to survive? The city will survive, I am sure of it, but I wonder if my fellow teacher was correct – if I returned in fifty years would I still find the same polished rogue?
Before I left for South America, I was talking with a very kind man whom I had the fortune of working with for a while. ‘You’re going to find something there,’ he said, his eyes narrowing knowingly. ‘I can feel it. There is a reason you have to go there.’
I found her.
The Nobel-prize-winning author, a previous resident of this city, raised ire (and noses) when, post-fame, he built a house in it that did not comply with the prevailing style.
Only to be subdued shortly afterwards in the see-sawing, three-way contest that evolved between Spain and the two camps of insurgents that were divided on the opinion of whether federal or republican governance would be best for a liberated territory. The republicans won out in the end, and Colombia, along with what are now known as the sovereign states of Panama and Venezuela, achieved independence as Gran Colombia in 1819, with a liberated Ecuador joining in 1822 (Obviously, republican governance did not suffice). Independence is celebrated twice in Cartagena – once for the city and once for the state.
Most of the buses’ curtains had remained closed for the duration of the journeys. A young Peruvian in the seat beside me had observed me looking out and had shaken his head and told me, ‘Nada.’
I’d initially been kept up by an Australian accent proclaiming audibly enough that I could hear it from at least five rows away that its owner was on his way to Santa Marta, another coastal city, where he was going to eagerly risk short-circuiting himself with narcotics. He knew, he boasted, where the orgies were. He had friends waiting there.
An impression. I have never been to Miami.
Oil, an industrial chemical and plastic complex, and a large-scale port are also contributors to the local coffers.
…even though it seems impossible for any recent comment on Colombia, including this one, to ignore those names.
In July this year The New York Times’ resident ‘Frugal Traveller’ wrote of the country that he enjoyed visiting the country exactly because of its ‘outdated reputation’ which presumably kept it light of the one thing the adventurer fears most, the common tourist.
While I have no doubt there is a basement level too, I never saw it.
Centigrade. It converts to 86 degree Fahrenheit.
In his defence, he did seem to be an extremely nice man.
Which incidentally, I assume is considered a public service.